Lives spared from arsonist blaze at Gilad Farm

Miracle at Gilad Farm as

settler blaze 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
settler blaze 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a modern-day version of a biblical miracle, Palestinian-ignited flames surrounded his home but did not consume it, Itai Zar said as he stood in his yard at the Gilad Farm outpost on Monday. Some 24 hours after the incident, one could still smell the smoke. Burnt brush surrounded the green, one-story makeshift home, one of several dozen that dot the Samaria hill. On Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashana, his family was in the yard setting the table for 20 guests. Zar did not see the Palestinians set fire to trees and dry brush further down the hill. Suddenly, someone screamed, "Fire! Fire!" Everything happened at once. He saw a tractor below his home drive away, he smelled smoke, and within minutes flames blew quickly up the hillside and into his yard. Blackened earth still marked the fire's path. "It was a miracle that our home was spared," said Zar, whose dwelling was one of five that sustained damage. Two homes were completely destroyed. In one instance, all that remained was a cinder pile intertwined with a piece of aluminum siding. Hidden in the ashes were broken dishes and burnt pages from religious books. Zar was injured in the leg as he battled the flames. He walked with a limp by the site of the two destroyed caravans. Samaria Regional Council spokesman David Ha'ivri said the flames had destroyed utility lines, and that the damage was estimated at NIS 500,000. The area of the outpost has often been a flashpoint of violence between settlers and Palestinians. Each side has made serious charges against the other regarding incidents of arson and theft. Sunday's fire, however, was one of the more serious attacks by Palestinians at the outpost, which was first built in 2002 in memory of Gilad Zar, Itai's brother, who was killed by a Palestinian sniper in May 2001 as he drove near the Yitzhar junction. On Sunday, Judea and Samaria Police arrested four Palestinians from Jit for alleged involvement in the arson attack. The suspects were arrested after being found in the vicinity, a few hours after the fire was reported. A Kfar Saba magistrate ordered the Palestinians to be kept in custody for four days as police continued to investigate the incident. "Their link to the arson attack is being examined," a Judea and Samaria Police spokesman said. "We view this incident with the utmost severity." A firefighter's investigation concluded that the fire had been started deliberately, leading police to call in large numbers of security personnel to scan the area for the arsonists. On Monday, a heavy ring of border policemen could be seen around the outpost. Zar said the officers feared a retaliatory attack by outpost residents against local Palestinians. On Sunday, however, immediate survival was all anyone thought about. Zar said he had immediately called emergency services, which came to help them douse the flames and to evacuate the women and children to the nearby Ramat Gilad outpost. Water pressure is low in the outpost, which lacks proper utilities because of its unauthorized status, he said. Water tanks had to be brought in on a truck, said Zar. It was the second time the outpost had lacked water to fight a fire. "It's dangerous that the government has not allowed us to have a proper water line here," he said. Last week, Gilad Farm residents and security personnel came to blows over the movement of a caravan from one area of the outpost to another. But on Monday, Zar had nothing but compliments for the security and emergency personnel who raced to help them. The shell of one of two destroyed homes was still standing, but fire had burned out a back wall. Outside there was a mound of melted plastic Lego blocks. Two tricycles that had survived the blaze were overturned. Next to the black rubble of a second home stood Itai Cohen, who until Sunday had lived there with his wife, Hilla, and their nine-month-old son, Yehu. They had just said the blessing over bread at their lunch table, which they had set up in a neighbor's yard, when they heard shouts of "Fire!" Quickly, Cohen said, he had changed out of his holiday clothing to help put out the flames further up the hill, unaware that they would soon spring into his own home. "Everything was destroyed," he said, including their clothing, cellphones, passports, wedding photographs and even his own baby pictures. Among the treasured mementos lost, he said, was his wife's wedding ring, which she had removed from her finger some time before the blaze. He tried to find it in the black mound that had been their home. "But I couldn't see it," he said. All he himself has left is a pair of shoes and a belt. "I borrowed these clothes," he said of his dusty shirt and pants.